A USC Homecoming for Poet Robinson Jeffers
Dean Catherine Quinlan and USC professor Dana Gioia with rare materials from the USC Libraries' and Occidental College Library's special collections. Photo/Dietmar Quistorf
The USC Libraries recently hosted a homecoming for Robinson Jeffers, the celebrated writer who studied at USC before moving to the rugged Big Sur coast and establishing himself as California’s preeminent poet. Scholars, authors, and readers assembled inside Doheny Memorial Library on Oct. 25 for an afternoon festival honoring Jeffers’ legacy and his connections to Los Angeles and USC.
Dana Gioia, USC’s Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Pubic Culture, conceived of the festival as a way to honor the university’s artistic tradition.
“In literature, if you look at the many distinguished writers and scholars who have gone through this school in the last century plus, the greatest author who attended USC was Robinson Jeffers,” said Gioia, a poet who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for us to honor this singular presence in American literature and beyond literature into the very consciousness—especially in the West—of what it means to be both an American and a citizen of the planet,” he added.
For Dean Catherine Quinlan of the USC Libraries, the festival was a way not only to honor Jeffers’ connection to USC, but also “his unique relationship to California as a place.”
“Over the years, we have built a strong collection that documents the history of our region and it is gratifying to draw upon our libraries’ relationship with California history in order to discover more about the life and work of this special California poet.”
Highlights from that collection, including finely printed books of Jeffers’ poetry and USC student publications in which the poet published his early work, were on display at the festival. The items from the USC Libraries’ special collections complemented a selection of rare materials from the Occidental College Library.
Occidental librarians Dale Ann Stieber and Helena de Lemos were on hand to introduce the manuscripts, photographs, and books, including a masterpiece of fine printing made from granite and cypress. Jeffers earned an undergraduate degree at Occidental before studying literature and medicine at USC.
Fine printer Michael Peich also spoke about the relationship between Jeffers and fine presses, which specialize in the art of the book and “respond to the poet’s words and idea.” Though national publishing houses printed Jeffers’ work, Jeffers collaborated closely with the operators of small, personal presses. In fact, it was a fine-printed, limited edition of Jeffers’ Tamar and Other Poems that made Jeffers famous in national literary circles.
Robinson Jeffers was born on Jan. 10, 1887 in Pittsburgh, Penn. The son of a strict Presbyterian minister, Jeffers spent much of his youth on the move before his family finally settled down in Southern California in 1903.
Jeffers’ biographer, James Karman, delivered the festival’s keynote address about Jeffers’ years in Los Angeles.
A child prodigy who mastered French, Latin, and Greek after one year of instruction as a twelve-year old, Jeffers enrolled at Occidental College—then located in Highland Park— as a junior. He was sixteen.
After graduating in 1905, Jeffers continued enrolled at USC as a graduate student, first taking courses in foreign languages and then entering the forerunner to the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Jeffers’ relationship with USC’s medical school resonates today. Karman was introduced by Gere diZerega, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School of Medicine who serves on the board of the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation.
USC is where Jeffers met his wife and lifelong muse, Una. Their romance—born in an advanced German class—ruffled feathers in Los Angeles’ high society; Una was then a married woman, and the affair led to her divorce from attorney Edward Kuster.
In a panel moderated by USC historian William Deverell, Gioia and University Professor Kevin Starr discussed Jeffers’ place within the literary history of California.
Gioia, responding to a question from Deverell, placed Jeffers amid a tripartite lineage of California nature writers beginning with John Muir and ending with Gary Snyder.
Science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, whose own tales of post-apocalyptic Orange County or a terraformed Mars explore the theme of landscape, considered Jeffers’ legacy within the tradition of nature writing.
Through his poetry, said Robinson, Jeffers “created his own personal religion—a California religion—a Big Sur religion.”
Writing about nature from Tor House, a structure he built himself out of stone on the wave-pounded Carmel coast, Jeffers resisted a human-centric worldview. He coined the term inhumanism and became a hero to the Sierra Club and others in the early twentieth-century environmental movement.
USC professors Kevin Starr, Dana Gioia, and William Deverell participated in a panel discussion about Jeffers and California's literary legacy. Photo/Dietmar Quistorf
Science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson discussed Jeffers as a nature poet. Photo/Dietmar Quistorf